A hospital ward. A woman lies, helpless. The switch attached to the needle in her arm is activated and blood starts to flow through the attached tube. We watch it slowly, painfully, leaving her body.
Lisa (Nina Hoss) used to be a playwright, but she hasn’t written much since her husband Martin took the family to Switzerland where he’s running a posh international school. And she hasn’t written anything since her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) got his diagnosis. Sven has cancer, and his hair is falling out, causing him to wear a selection of fancy wigs and causing her to donate him her bone marrow.
Sven is an actor and was due to be playing Hamlet in the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin. He attends rehearsals watching his replacement mangle his lines. But director David won’t cast his old friend in a play that is nearly 4 hours long when his health is fading. To add to the meta level, David is played by Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director of the Schaubühne who directed Lars Eidinger as Hamlet there.
In their different ways, the twins try to convince David to find a role for Sven who seems lost without his acting. Lisa initially refuses to believe that Sven cannot keep the Hamlet gig. Surely, if things get too bad, you can shove an understudy on? Sven in more aware of the pain that is racking every part of his body and so is less likely to get stroppy about this.
Lisa invites Sven to Switzerland to convalesce, but he doesn’t seem too happy there in the snow among the rich tourists. Nor, it becomes clear, does Lisa. Martin may enjoy the luxurious lifestyle, and wants to send their kids to school with the brood of Russian oligarchs, but she’d be rather back in her 2 room flat in Berlin.
After an accident, for which Lisa holds her husband responsible, Lisa and Sven return home to their mother who doesn’t understand why they’re doing this fancy new-fangled theatre instead of more political works by Brecht. Martin stays in Switzerland for a while, but later reappears. Even then, he’s more interested in grabbing the kids than in understanding what his wife is going through. All in all, he’s a bit of a dick.
When she is finally convinced that Hamlet is too much, Lisa finally starts writing again, producing a 45 minute monologue – or possibly dualogue – based on Hansel and Gretel. Yet David looks reluctant to even contemplate a short piece, and instead tries to confront Lisa with the facts of just how sick her brother is. The audience is asked to choose between LIsa’s hope that her brother can somehow recover and David’s rational but cold logical response.
This is a film about grief – or rather about the anticipation of grief – and few people can do grief better than Nina Hoss. We follow the ongoing tragedy through Hoss’s facial gestures. Lisa has long since given up her career, and most of her life, for her beloved brother, and her face shows a vacant sense of loss. While her brother stays sane by fooling around with Lisa’s kids, she is not afforded any such levity.
In a sense, we are witnessing a change in the balance of power between the siblings. Up until now, he has been the male, the performer, always eager to surge upstage. She has been the woman who has written his lines but hidden backstage while he delivered them, just as in her marriage it seems to be always her husband who takes the important decisions. Suddenly, it is Lisa who has to take on the grief.
And yet, apart from a late scene when she hurls a scooter against a recycling bin, Lisa is not allowed to express her pain, except through rows with her insensitve husband, who doesn’t really appreciate her suffering. He’s more interested in extending his plushy contract, even though it’s clear to anyone who’s paying attention that Lisa hates it there.
Schwesterlein isn’t really about People Like Uz, and the cancer theme brings with it the risk of sinking into self-indulgent melodrama, but the acting performances pull it through. Hoss, in particular, has perfected the art of visually suffering so much that we share her pain. The film his surprizingly few laughs for a cancer drama, but is definitely worth a look, if you can find an open cinema nowadays.